When it comes to calf rearing, identifying risks and taking precautions will minimise the risks. And this is where calf signals has its place. Watching calf behaviour more carefully and picking up early signs of any health or welfare problems can reduce performance setbacks.

Ignoring calf signals has a hefty price tag. Disease incidences among calves will account for some of these costs, with a case of calf scour estimated at £581, and a case of pneumonia costing around £821 per calf, taking account of reduced growth, treatment and mortality costs. And a decline in growth rates will also increase age at first calving.

Calves have the genetic ability to meet target growth rates of 750g to 850g per day and to calve down at two years old, but their growth rates are typically only 60% to 70% of their potential; the calf’s environmental and dietary limitations can cause these growth constraints.

It’s easy not to notice some of the signs. But a walk through the calves to look beyond the obvious – for behavioural, posture and physical signs – can be an early warning of a problem.

Calves should be active, bright and inquisitive to visitors. Too much time spent lying down, or floppy ears and an arched back, are signs all is not well. Look for the signals and, if anything looks untoward, take action.

A decline in growth rate is difficult to make up, and an extended rearing period carries a price tag.

The calving pen is the first place to look out for calf signals. It’s where the greatest risk of infection lies and it should be cleaned out after each calving. Look at newborn calves too – they should be standing in an hour and be generally alert.

Colostrum feeding also poses risks of infection. Colostrum offers the calf its only immunity in early life, but bear in mind that its bacterial count can double every 20 minutes. So, wearing gloves, collecting it in a clean container and covering it with a lid are good practices. Make sure the colostrum on offer is ‘liquid gold’ not ‘bacterial soup’.

Review of Facilities:

Calf performance can be compromised by the calf’s environment. Drafts and temperature will take their toll.

For every 1°C below the calf’s ideal temperature range, its maintenance requirement increases by 1%.

And in summer, calves will experience heat stress above 25°C at a relative humidity of 60% which is typically in the UK in warmer months. Feed intake and growth rates will typically decline in these conditions.

It goes without saying that mixing equipment should be as bug-free as possible, and a look inside the fridge will see if the colostrum or medicines are in a hygienic environment.

Calf signals can play an important part in minimising these losses by improving calf welfare, health and growth performance. It comes down to looking beyond the obvious, identifying the limitations and acting on the knowledge.

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The preweaning phase of a calf’s life provide a huge opportunity to optimise the lifetime performance of the calf. High growth rates in the preweaning period have been shown to demonstrate clear long-term benefits on fertility, lactation and performance.

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1 AHDB Economics of Health and Welfare https://ahdb.org.uk/economics-of-health-welfare